Posted by: Anthony Giancarlo Ragusa
Date: March 9, 2009 8:30 AM
Subject: Term Paper Draft
Anthony Giancarlo Ragusa
Santa Clara University
US History: 19th Century
The Ragusa Family History
The history of my Dad’s side of the family parallels that of the Italian immigrants who intrepidly sought out the American Dream. The immigrating generation of the Ragusa family, my great-great-grandparents, came to America around 1900 during a time when many families from Southern Italy and Sicily made the voyage. Italian-Americans, including my ancestors, faced discrimination throughout the nation, which led to the development of self-reliant Italian communities, such as the West Side of Buffalo, New York. This district in Buffalo is where the Ragusa family would eventually settle and prosper. The story of my family in America is one characterized by a merchant’s zeal with the imported values of hard work and independence. The most integral aspect of life to Italian immigrants, however, was the state of the family. Although three generations of the Ragusa family have since been born in America, the same values and culture of the immigrant generation remain imbued in my sisters and me.
In Sicily, the Ragusa family had a farm and a general store. The women of the family sewed and sold their clothes at the store, while the men toiled the land and managed the store. This strategy was common in Sicily and an essential definition of the Ragusa family’s worldview. This merchant spirit would be passed down through each generation.
Around 1900, Antonio Ragusa, my great-great-grandfather, and his wife, Gaetana (Marinello), decided to move their family from the tiny town of Rocermana, Sicily, and pursue the American dream. Like many Sicilian families who immigrated to America, my ancestors were not part of the peasant class in Sicily.
[Italian immigrants] were not the poorest, the least motivated, or the dropouts of south Italian society. On the contrary, their contemporaries judged them to be more frugal, thrifty, energetic, and better educated than the peasants who remained behind (Lans-McLaughlin 35).
The migration from Sicily was motivated by the appeal of the American dream and the discord in Italy. In the late 19th century there was “National Unification” throughout the nation that did not embrace Southern Italy and Sicily. This led the southerners to feel as though they were conquered subjects.
The migration from Sicily to Ellis Island generally took nearly a month, and upon arriving in America, Antonio and his family settled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Antonio and Gaetana had a total of nine children, including my great-grandfather, Joseph (who was born in Sicily in 1888). The family continued their same occupation in Baton Rouge as farmers and owners of a general store. In Baton Rouge, young Joseph Ragusa, who was fourteen at the time of the migration, met Loretta Valarto, who migrated with her family to Baton Rouge from Palermo, Italy, at the age of four. The two married in 1912, when Joseph was twenty-four years old and Loretta was fourteen years old. However, Baton Rouge wasn’t the right place for the Ragusa family. Several floods, discrimination, and the struggles of building a business in a hostile community proved untenable for my ancestors; while up north, in Buffalo, New York, a large Sicilian and Italian population found opportunity. They built a community comprised of the promise of America and the culture brought from the motherland.
“Italians immigrating to Buffalo found themselves in a new situation with a variety of options, and they adapted their Old World traits accordingly.” (Lans-McLaughlin 23)
So, in 1916, the Ragusa family left Baton Rouge for Buffalo, where Gaetana’s (Marinello) relatives from Sicily lived. It was common for Italian immigrants to settle with family, especially in Buffalo.
Immigrants almost always came to join others who had preceded them – a husband, or a father, or an uncle, or a friend. In Western New York most of the first immigrants from Sicily went to Buffalo, so that from 1900 on the thousands who followed them to this part of the state also landed in Buffalo (Lans-McLaughlin 58).
Italian immigrants faced discrimination in America, especially in Louisiana, where in 1891 eleven Italian immigrants were lynched in the largest mass lynching in American history. The Ragusa family could not ignore the hostility toward Italian-Americans, as discrimination played a role in their decision to move to Buffalo. Despite the move, they and other Italians still had to overcome discrimination in order to succeed. “As the last large European group to enter Buffalo, the Italians were harshly discriminated against by both the upper-class and the working-class citizens. Economic discrimination limited their employment opportunities (Lans-McLaughlin 19).” However, The West Side of Buffalo became a safe haven for the Italian immigrants where they built a community based on their culture.
In the late nineteenth century, families from a few north Sicilian coastal towns began to dominate this important West Side colony. Originating on the extreme southwest corner of Main Street, by 1922, it extended from Niagara Street’s northern tip westward to the waterfront. Buffalonians designated this area “Little Italy” because of the immigrant social and cultural life centered here (Lans-McLaughlin 59).
While in Buffalo, Joseph and Loretta had three children. The first was a daughter, Gaetana (Ida), followed by my grandfather Anthony, and then Leo, a WWII veteran. Anthony married my grandmother, Helen. Helen’s father, Vincenzo, and mother, Angela, came to America from San Fele, Italy, in 1889. Helen gave birth to two children, my Aunt Carol in 1945, and my father, Anthony Jr. in 1953. My grandmother died when she was only 44 years old (and my father was only 9). Because of my grandfather’s business success, my father was able to grow up in a more accessible environment, but still faced considerable prejudice while attending predominantly Irish Catholic schools: St. Benedict’s grammar school in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, Canisius High School (the Jesuit High School in Buffalo), and Boston College, an Irish stronghold. In 1979, my father married my mother, Margaret Killeen, and they began building a family of their own in earnest. They had 4 children in just their first 4 years of marriage and 7 total. First came Ariana, then Alison, followed by Katherine, Kelly, Gabriela, Juliana, and, finally, myself – six girls and one boy.
The Ragusa family lived on the West-Side of Buffalo from the time Joseph and Loretta moved to the city until 1959, which was a time when, “urban renewal destroyed much of the lower west side colony (Lans-McLaughlin 60).” Although my Dad was only five and my Aunt Carol was fourteen when their family moved to the suburbs, they were both imbued with the immigrant values that built the community. My father would continue to spend weekends on the West Side with his aunts, uncles, and cousins for the next several years. “[The Italians on the West Side] They shaped my worldview, my value system, and my attitude,” says my Dad. The Italian community in the West Side was like one rather large extended family. For the immigrants, it was necessary for them to band together to protect and support each other. “Living on the West Side, people were constantly visiting each other’s homes, sitting on each other’s porch. It was a community that interacted with each other,” says my Aunt Carol, “people laugh because we had ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ that weren’t related.” This tight-knit community was an extension of the motherland for the immigrants, “Italians immigrating to Buffalo found themselves in a new situation with a variety of options, and they adapted their Old World traits accordingly (Lans-McLaughlin 23).”
For Italian immigrants, especially the Ragusa family, the adjustment was made possible because engraved in Italian culture is an independence along with a reliance on the family as a support system. The Italian immigrants: “…selected goals that matched their family orientation. Shunning such individualized routes to success as the professions or higher education, the average immigrant family coveted a home or a petit bourgeois business (a shop or saloon) so that their children might inherit property.” (Lans-McLaughlin 36).
When the Ragusa family moved to Buffalo, Antonio and Gaetana opened up a small grocery store on the West Side with money Gaetana had inherited. The two ran the store until they passed away some forty years later. Like his parents, Joseph Ragusa was a merchant. He opened up a hardware store on Seneca Street on the West Side. Joseph died at the early age of forty-nine and in classic Italian immigrant fashion my grandfather and his sister Ida’s husband, Louis Battaglia, took over the hardware store and successfully developed other business ventures. “Neither the immigrant generation nor its children conformed to the American ideal of occupational success (Lans-McLaughlin 47).”
My grandfather attended Grover Cleveland High School, a public school in the city, but did not graduate. What he didn’t learn in school he made up for with hard work and self-education. “He used to work for 16 hours a day and would read until two-three in morning,” says my Aunt Carol. He was a natural merchant – he was a Ragusa. In 1953, he opened up a discount department store, Twin Fair, which proved to be one of his most successful, but not final, business venture. The Italian immigrants seldom relied on anybody outside of the community and this was no different for the next generation. Like most Italians on the West Side, my grandfather stuck to his own kind. His Twin Fair business partners: Louis Battaglia, Jack Bona, and John Nasca, were all Italians from the same neighborhood.
Although my Dad didn’t take over any of his father’s businesses – they never did learn to get along in business – he did learn the value of independence from his father, which certainly helped him to excel as a merchant. Along with his ongoing Jesuit experience, my father felt he was uniquely prepared for business and life. He has often said he still possesses the low-class values that were admired on the West Side: independence, virility, and athleticism. In 1979, my father opened up the Stereo Advantage, a 450 sq’ consumer electronics store with as much as his grandfather, Joseph, had started out with over sixty years before when he opened up his hardware store – a merchant’s dream. With hard-work, innovation, and tenacity, my Dad was able to expand his businesses and provide limitless opportunities for our family. The values of the Italian immigrants from the West Side, combined with the self-reliant spirit of the Ragusa’s, and an outstanding Jesuit education gave my Dad a foundation and skill set with which he has passed on to my sisters and me. The idea of independence, the value of property, and the dream of providing opportunity for your family was the impetus for Antonio and Loretta Ragusa to come to America, and over one hundred years later the same ideals drive yet another generation of the Ragusa family.
The most evident characteristic of Italian immigrants and the following generations is the respect and adoration of the family. “Family support within the Italian community is remarkable and that is due to the values of our ancestors,” says Aunt Carol. Above anything else was the health and safety of the family for the immigrants. When my grandfather’s wife passed away, his best friend and brother-in-law Louis moved in for a few months to help look after the family. “Everything else was put aside when somebody died or was ill,” says Aunt Carol, “I often see people in the hospital and their family and friends only stop in every once in a while. That doesn’t happen in Italian families. When Uncle Louis was sick we were there day and night, and the same for when my Dad was in the hospital.” Along with emotional support, Italian families often supported each other financially in times of disarray. My grandfather supported his brother Leo’s family after Leo struggled to adjust after World War II.
The support in times of family crisis was equaled by exuberance in times of celebration for Italian families. One immigrant said, ‘We had little time for recreation. When we wanted to relax we were with the family.’ The Italians had ‘loud and joyous’ family celebrations in their home ‘on every possible occasion’…The immigrants’ most important social events involved rituals and ceremonies connected with family, especially baptisms, weddings, and funerals (Lans-McLaughlin 135).
This past September my sister Katherine became the first sibling in my family to marry. In traditional Italian immigrant fashion we had a ‘loud and joyous’ family celebration at our house. For better or worse, Italians are full of emotion and it is brought to light at family celebrations. “Italian celebrations are very emotional. It is easy to notice an Italian funeral because there is always a wailer. We are emotional people,” says Aunt Carol.
For the Italian immigrants and following generations it was important to the family structure for the men to provide and the women to nurture at home. “The Italian ideal was to keep women at home (Lans-McLaughlin 53).” This ideal was not left behind in the voyage to America, despite the difficulties the immigrants faced. “The nuclear family pattern proved extraordinarily resilient; unstable male employment, for example, rarely resulted in desertion or diminished male control (Lans-McLaughlin 18).”
Throughout the generations, the Ragusa family has not strayed from the Italian family structure. As the times change, this ideal has become outdated for Italian women but remains relevant in the male Ragusa world view.
Italian immigrants brought with them a strong demand of respect from the children in the family and community. “Most Sicilians were tough and what they said was law. The demanded respect especially from their kids,” says Aunt Carol. The Italian immigrants approached rearing their children differently from most Americans:
The Buffalo Italians believed that family interests were better served by property ownership and financial security than by children’s leisure and education. The younger generations long-term interests simply had a lower priority than the immediate family needs (Lans-McLaughlin 177).
Out of Antonio and Gaetana Ragusa’s nine children only one, the youngest daughter, graduated from college. Italian family structure was critical in the growth and development of the Italian-American community as a whole.
When recounting history it is easy to paint a picture full of bright and vibrant colors, but without the dark contrast the narrative is incomplete. Severed ties and the often comical clashing personalities also provide the Ragusa portrait with life’s natural balance that differentiates good and bad. My ancestors dealt with hardships of immigration and toiled to provide the next generation with concrete values and opportunity. Throughout the following generations the family successfully overcame internal and external challenges.
The Ragusa family history is a unique story that coincides with that of Italian immigrants as a whole. From Rocermana to Baton Rouge to Buffalo, the Ragusa family has proudly carried the everlasting immigrant values of family and independence.
The West Side of Buffalo was the perfect setting for the Ragusa family and the merchant zeal that fostered and accrued opportunity for each generation. From Antonio’s grocery store, to Joseph’s hardware store, to my grandfather’s Twin Fair, and to my Dad’s Stereo Advantage, each generation of Ragusa men were ingrained with independence and self-reliance. Throughout each chapter, however, it was the family that remained central to development and prosperity. Whether it is being there when a family member is ill, celebrating a wedding, raising a child, or playing a dynamic role in the family structure, the Italian immigrants and Ragusa family shared the same ideals.
Each day the living descendants of Antonio and Gaetana Ragusa write a new page in our family history preceded by ancestors and events we will forever be linked too. We all independently carry on with our lives, knowing it can end at any moment, but outliving each individual is the family, which will continue to author the magical story of Sicilian immigrants chasing a dream.
Anthony’s College Application
Posted by: Anthony
Date: November 29, 2007
The college application. I know that’s not a sentence, but it is a complete thought. It’s a thought that resonates throughout my daily routine. I think about it, I analyze it, and I prepare for it. Now it’s time to do it. I’ve assembled my ideas, answers, pictures, data, and all of the resources I could muster for its completion. The next leg of my academic journey begins.
I have six older sisters. Ariana got us all started on this journey when she began her college application process back in 1998. I was only 8 at the time, but I remember her quest. The trips my parents took with her to various colleges left us all envious and excited. The anticipation grew with each sister heading off to college. Today, Ariana is working on her Phd in Philosophy at Duquesne. Alison has her Masters from BU, Katherine has couple of Master degrees and she’s teaching in Rochester, and Kelly is in the MBA program at Canisius College. That leaves Gabriela and Juliana, who are a senior and junior at Miami of Ohio, respectively. They’ve all paved the way for me, and now it’s my turn.
College is right around the corner, but all my sisters tell me graduate school will be on me in a flash. So, I’ve been encouraged to enjoy the undergraduate years, and make certain to choose a school that will not only prepare me, but, more importantly, involve me in the academic, social, and athletic pursuit that will define my 4 years. I am confident that Miami of Ohio is that kind of school. I know the campus well, and my sisters have provided me with a unique perspective of campus life. Hopefully, I will be accepted as a member of the class of 2011.
- Short essay.
Please briefly elaborate on one of your activities.
For the past several years, I have been involved in the fund-raising golf tournament that my father sponsors for Children’s Hospital. I started out as a caddie and photo assistant, and, for the past three years, I have been the manufacturer of all the golf clubs given away at the event. I have made 1,145 golf clubs that have been given away as door prizes and raffled off for the benefit of Children’s Hospital. I have become an expert clubmaker, but, more importantly, I have gotten to know the doctors, nurses, and administrators of Children’s Hospital. There is something special about being involved with this group of people. It has provided me with a lasting perspective on health care. My Dad makes a difference every year with several events for the hospital, and I plan on continuing his work for as long as I can.
- Personal essay.
Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or creative work that has had an influence on you.
Based on my ongoing curiosity of our family heritage, I’ve decided to write about Marco Polo and the influence he has had on me. My Dad often fools with us saying that we are Venetian, Portuguese, and Turkish, and that we come from Ragusa, Yugoslavia [which, today, is Dubrovnik, Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea]. When Marco Polo lived in the 13th century, Ragusa was under the sovereignty of Venice. The 153 years of Venetian rule and influence played a big part in the development of Ragusa as an international trading port.
Marco Polo was from a family of merchants in Venice. He first went to the east on a trade mission with his father, Niccolo, and his uncle. After his now famous travels to the court of the great Khan, Marco Polo is said to have sent his family to Ragusa when Venice was defeated by Genoa [or so my father says]. Marco Polo’s years of captivity in Genoa gave birth to the publication of his remarkable tales [Il Milione], but this also gave birth to my father’s questionable tale that we are indeed his descendants. Coupled with an expedition to Venice with a few of my sisters and mother, I now have the chance to add to the family fable that my father has created. I can only hope that it intrigues my own children as much as Marco’s [and my father’s] tales intrigued us.
As always, my mother provides a more practical and historically reliable version of the heritage of our family, but Marco Polo has certainly fired my imagination. Of course, no discourse of Marco Polo can be put into perspective without a clear understanding of the nature of the world in the late 13th century, or without a working knowledge of Kublai Khan. Ariana has told me that without the clear understanding of the zeitgeist [I looked it up] of the period, I would not be able to immerse myself in its history. Although the Renaissance garners more attention in the 14th to 17th centuries, the transition of Western Europe from the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance can clearly be marked by the exploits of Marco Polo. Of course, more of the credit may be due his biographer, Rustichello da Pisa; who, my mother tells me was Marco Polo’s Boswell. Which, naturally, led me down the path of James Boswell – who, it turns out, was the biographer of Samuel Johnson. But, back to Marco Polo and the Ragusa connection.
My great grandfather came to America in the late 1800’s. He was a merchant in Louisiana, and eventually migrated to Western New York, where he spent the rest of his life running his general store. My grandfather was a merchant as well and built a notable hardware store chain out of his father’s general store in the 60’s and 70’s. My father was never comfortable with the family business, but, nevertheless, became a successful merchant on his own. It is something that is imbued in all of us – not so much the independent spirit of a merchant – but, more so, the nature of the journey that being a merchant leads to. When my father went off on his own, he likened it to an adventure. Everyone thought my mother and he were crazy, but it defined and invigorated them – just as the adventures of Marco Polo defined and invigorated generations of merchants and explorers. The remarkable success of our parent’s journey has certainly provided us with limitless opportunity, but the nature of each journey for all of us has been, and will be, defined by the character of that journey. It remains an individual challenge.
College is part of the journey, and I want it to be an adventure. I want to explore it, and, most importantly, I want it to fire my imagination and launch me into a lifetime of pursuit: the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of happiness, and the pursuit of having a positive impact wherever my journey may lead.
I am the last of the 7 kids to venture forth into the world. I consider myself the Marco Polo of the family, but I have 6 sisters that would challenge that assertion. We are all an intrepid bunch. I am confident I can bring that intrepid spirit to Miami of Ohio if I am fortunate enough to be accepted in the class of 2011.
Thank you for your consideration.